Just to catch you up in case you haven’t been reading the latest news from Maker/engineering circles. And please note, this is based on my understanding of what I’ve read so far. I’m no trademark/copyright/patent/whatever expert, and am NOT claiming to be one.
Post that got everyone alllll fired up: https://www.sparkfun.com/news/1428
The essential jist is that Fluke, a maker of high end multimeters and high quality diagnostic tools as well as biomedical equipment, trademarked the following in 2003:
Fluke Coporation’s rough sketch of a digital multimeter
Indication of Colors claimed: Color is not claimed as a feature of the mark.
Description of Mark: The mark consists of the colors dark gray and yellow as applied to the goods. The dotted outline of the goods is intended to show the position of the mark and is not a part of the mark.
Now, as a result of this, items coming into the US that are “multimeters, digital multimeters, and products with multimeter functionality that have a contrasting color combination of a dark-colored body or face and a contrasting yellow border, frame, molding, overlay, holster or perimeter” are held back at Customs.
SparkFun, a store that caters to diy/hobbyists had such a batch of 2000 multimeters held back as they were violating this trademark. They had two options, either send the batch back and pay high tariff fees back into China, or destroy them at 150/hour because they can’t be brought and sold in the US. (At least those are the two options they are saying they have).
There have been essentially two sides, as I understand it.
One side says, what the heck is this nonsense. I’ve heard the following:
- Why does SparkFun have to destroy 2000 perfectly fine and cheap multimeters just because the color’s the same?
- The principle of trademarking colors like this is absurd. Why don’t we just trademark all the colors and prevent anyone else from using them? <sarcasm>
- Yellow has been around for tons of other multimeters. And isn’t a “dark-colored body” kind of vague for a color?
- They should trademark specific Pantone colors like how Tiffany was required for “Tiffany Blue”
- Sparkfun wasn’t trying to brand their multimeters as Fluke or Fluke-like. No intentional association was attempted.
- Why not give Sparkfun a temporary license so they can fix things.
And another side says:
- Trademark is trademark. Sparkfun violated it, they should have to take the consequences.
- If you want to run a real business in the real world, then follow the rules like all of the other companies.
- The colors AND shape make their product look like a Fluke. It’s not just that it was yellow, it’s that if you placed the Sparkfun one next to a Fluke one, besides the label, no one would easily tell them apart.
- What if someone picks it up and uses it on sensitive equipment thinking it’s a Fluke, and something messes up.
- If you want to sell inferior knock-offs, do so out of the country, otherwise abide by US laws.
I was originally on the “what the heck is this nonsense” side with the idea that I really don’t think color arrangement as simple as a yellow border around a dark grey body equates to any particular brand. And if someone who’s a professional, who’s working on sensitive equipment can’t tell it’s not a Fluke, then maybe they shouldn’t be working on that sensitive equipment. The principle of being able to trademark something like a color on an object seems silly to me.
But then Laen of @oshpark brought up an interesting point of view. He is WIDELY known as the purple pcb guy. 95% of the purple PCBs out there (in my viewing range) are from his pcb fab for makers/hobbyists/diy-ers/even professional engineers doing one-offs. But, recently, another PCB fab commonly used by the same group of people decided to add purple to their colors provided.
What happens if a shoddy board of the other fab’s is critiqued/torn apart, and someone else seeing that review thinks, oh. Purple PCBs are crappy, must be OSHPark’s. And then OSHPark loses business as a result. Would trademark of a color be right at this point?
We know Laen/OSHPark, and we know he wouldn’t trademark a color because he was trying to hoard it all for himself, but among this community, there is a clear connection between him and the color of those PCBs. Also note, he has NOT claimed trademark for the color of soldermask, it was just brought up as an example of something “closer” to home.
This was an interesting other point of view in which I feel like I have double standards. I can definitely see another pcb fab wanting to ride on the coattails of OSHPark’s success by offering purple boards. And I can also see the ramifications of shoddy manufacturing that’d become potentially associated with the wrong fab. Hmm.
In any case. Sparkfun has had to deal with a bit of fallout from this issue, but they were very generous: https://www.facebook.com/notes/fluke-corporation/sparkfun-we-hear-you/10151978262765592
"Earlier today we contacted SparkFun and offered to provide a shipment of genuine Fluke equipment, free of charge for them to sell on their site or donate. The value of the equipment exceeds the value of the Customs-held shipment. SparkFun can resell the Fluke gear, recouping the cost of their impounded shipment, or donate it into the Maker community."
This is something they did not have to do because technically they were upholding trademark, something that Sparkfun should have looked into during the design of their products. But they did, and that is commendable of them.
What are your thoughts?
P.S. I know some say this has been talked about WAY too much, this is more as an informational post for those who haven’t heard about it :p